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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 January, 2005, 14:37 GMT
Child singers blossom despite music ban

By Haroon Rashid
BBC News, Peshawar, North-West Frontier Province

Zeeshan Khan (left) and Tariq Hussain Bacha
Zeeshan (left) and Tariq played secret gigs in back rooms
Critics are heralding them as a new addition to the Pashto language's music landscape in Pakistan's conservative North-West Frontier Province.

Twelve-year-old Tariq Hussain Bacha and Zeeshan Khan, 11, had to brave poverty and discrimination to make a name for themselves - as well as a ban by religious hardliners on performing in public.

The two boys from Pakistan's tough, tribal badlands are now child stars after selling thousands of albums of traditional songs at home and abroad.

Little Zeeshan is confined to a wheelchair.

"Disability was the force that drove me to be part of the music world," says Zeeshan, who was left paralysed by polio in early childhood.

No slowing up

The pair shot to stardom with the release in August last year of their album Joora Guloona, a phrase meaning "pair of flowers" in the dialect of the ethnic Pashtuns who inhabit the rugged region.

I am not fearful of mullahs or clergymen. I only fear my God. I love singing songs that glorify the Pashtun nation
Tariq Hussain Bacha

Stocked at first by a few shops in Peshawar's famous Choor Bazar (Thieves Bazaar), copies started flying off the shelves and soon there were orders from the United States, Germany, the United Arab Emirates and Afghanistan.

The album has now sold more than 10,000 copies, with no sign of slowing up.

Child stars are not unheard of in Pakistani pop, which is dominated by songs from the subcontinent's movie industry and modern versions of ancient Qawwali music.

One of the biggest was the late Nazia Hussain, who won the nation's hearts as a 15-year-old schoolgirl in 1981 with a disco hit from a Bollywood movie. She died of cancer at the age of 35.

But Zeeshan and Tariq are the first to emerge from the folk music scene of their ultra-conservative region, where musicians are looked down upon as belonging to a lower caste.

"Artists are not welcomed in Pashtun society despite the fact they love music," says Tariq's father, 42-year-old Zahir Shah.

Venue closed

In fact the boys' careers nearly failed to get off the ground at all, despite both being blessed with a gift for singing and musical parents.

Zeeshan is a "born singer", says his father Shah Jehan, 50, who taught him the harmonium.

Qazi Hussain Ahmed, leader of the hardline Islamic MMA
Hardline Islamists have cracked down on elements of culture

And Tariq begged to be allowed on stage at the age of nine when his relatives were performing at Nishter Hall, Peshawar's main concert venue.

Three years ago, still as solo artists, they began performing shows and releasing a handful of home-produced albums.

But then a powerful alliance of Islamic parties swept to power in the province in November 2002, riding on the back of widespread anger at the US invasion of Afghanistan the year before.

The fundamentalists frowned on all music, closed Nishter Hall, and banned other public performances on the grounds of protecting public morality.

In particular they hated the romantic, highly poetic songs that tap into the thick vein of Pashtun nationalism that runs through the region - the very material that formed the heart of the boys' repertoire.

'Fame academy'

However, the boys bravely kept playing secret solo gigs in the back rooms of people's homes.

Decorations in the boys' office  in Peshawar
Decorations in the boys' office. Their album is doing a roaring trade

"I am not fearful of mullahs or clergymen. I only fear my God," Tariq says.

"I love singing songs that glorify the Pashtun nation."

After 18 months of secrecy, the boys' parents became desperate for the world to hear their music and helped make the CD.

The Joora Guloona album is doing a roaring trade.

Its biggest sales have been in the ethnic Pashtun market, although the producer and distributor hopes its appeal will stretch further.

"The album's name refers to the teenage years, which in Pashtun society are associated with flowers, and their successful story is partly because of that," says local music impresario Jehanzeb Khan.

The boys' parents have appealed for some form of "fame academy" in Pakistan to make life easier for young artistes.

"There may be more talented teens but since there is no official patronage the talent goes to waste," says Tariq's father.

In a world where fame is increasingly seen as an easy route to happiness and riches, Zeeshan's father hopes it will bring his son just one thing.

"I am waiting for the day when someone comes and says they will take Zeeshan to the best hospital in the world to treat his legs, so he can walk again."


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